The Borders: traditional, independent, unspoilt. And now with a super new little railway.

Although I grew up not many miles to the west, I have rarely visited the area generally known as the Borders – essentially the traditional counties of Selkirk, Roxburgh and Peebles – lying just to the north of the English border. But a brief day trip on the new Borders Railway on a lovely early autumn day two years ago introduced me to the quiet charms of the area.  Now, the chance to meet up with some old friends brought me back to Galashiels on a dark, damp, late afternoon at the end of November.

The opening of the railway has been one of the few heartening transport-related stories in the last few years and the throng of pre-Christmas shoppers, plus a few fragile Murrayfield returners, who packed into the little train as it left Waverley, testified to the line’s growing popularity.

Tweedbank: a couple of miles from Melrose and the final destination on the new Borders Railway, is in the heart of the Borders.

Although it was soon too dark to appreciate the scenery, the route travels through some lovely countryside on its way down to Tweedbank. Hopefully, its popularity will continue to grow as it aids the local economy and opens up the area for recreation and commuting, while lessening traffic on the surrounding roads.  Certainly, my mid week return trip seemed very popular with morning shoppers heading for Edinburgh and the full car park suggested  many commuters to the city were now taking the train.

I travelled from Galashiels by bus to Kelso. The timings suggested there is some coordination of rail/bus services, although a delayed arrival would have resulted in a two hour wait for the last available bus that evening.

I was meeting my friends at Duncan House in Kelso. Dating from the early nineteenth century, this impressive Regency building has been sensitively restored and is positioned only meters from the town centre.  It also overlooks the River Tweed and the famous Junction Pool, renowned for its salmon.

The Junction Pool on the Tweed: world famous for salmon.

Next morning, while my friends took advantage of the country’s premier salmon river, I caught the bus into Melrose.  I intended to walk from there to St Boswell’s, on a route I had taken previously – but this time, hopefully, without getting lost.  But, before I set out I wandered around Melrose’s attractive town centre, finding an interesting knitting shop, with impressive stock and friendly, knowledgeable staff, as well as a couple of cosy cafes.

One reason for the walk was to revisit the wonderful bookshop/cafe/deli,the Mainstream Trading Company, in St Boswells.  I was delighted it had recently been awarded the title of Britain’s Best Small Shop 2018: well deserved in my book.  To say I was disappointed to find that Monday was the one day of the week when Mainstream is closed was something of an understatement, but it should teach me to check basic details in advance.

So, I headed back to Kelso a little earlier than planned, but found some pleasant surprises there as well. There seem to be far fewer chain outlets than usually found in British high streets and, consequently, more independent shops have survived. I had forgotten to pack my Apple charging plug, but found one easily in a very well stocked computer shop. There were also several decent clothes shops and, pleasingly, few major supermarkets.

Walking alongside the River Tweed. Quiet roads and alluring, undulating landscapes make the area ideal for walkers and cyclists.

Lunch at the Cream Chimneys, in the town square, was a pleasant surprise, with delicious Moroccan tomato soup, a good flat white and a mouthwatering cake. The piece de resistance though, was its resident canine companion, the lovely, placid Piper, this afternoon accompanied by a crazily delectable, young springer spaniel.

The now persistent rain tempted me back to Duncan House somewhat earlier than I had planned, but a roaring fire, pot of tea and a good book made it well worth while. There are certainly much worse ways to spend a murky November afternoon.

Southern Scotland – i.e., the area north of the English border and south of Glasgow and Edinburgh – is a region still relatively under visited and overlooked, in tourist terms. The M74 and main West Coast Mainline provide a sort of border between the east and west sides of the region; the east more pastoral and undulating, compared to the higher and more exposed hills of Dumfriesshire and Galloway. 

In the east, the historic and independent towns of, Kelso, Galashiels , Melrose  and Hawick survived centuries of border wars and sieges until the establishment of the UK in the eighteenth century. Probably best known in the past for their tweed, rugby and salmon, communities throughout the region have retained their individual character and continue to preserve their unique heritage through traditions like the annual riding of the marches, or common riding. These summer festivals are rooted in the region’s past and maintain the traditions of checking the boundaries of each community.  This is particularly associated with the Borders because of the centuries of wars with England and the lawlessness of the infamous Borders Reivers.

One of the most striking aspects of the Borders is its religious legacy. The region is home to a number of ancient abbeys, of which the most famous are, Melrose, Kelso, Dryburgh and Jedburgh.  All four were established in the  twelfth century and are testament to the importance of the area in the middle ages, when various orders of monks made the journey from Europe and settled here to  practise their religion: a timely reminder of our enduring links with the continent. 

Melrose Abbey: the best preserved of the four famous Borders abbeys.

Although constantly besieged and attacked during the centuries of  internecine struggle, the surviving  ruins still give a vivd impression of the beauty of these buildings. Today the ideal way to appreciate the abbeys is to cycle the 55 mile 4 Abbeys route, or walk the 109 kilometres Borders Abbeys Way. 

The Borders, largely by passed by the Industrial Revolution and sufficiently distant from the cities of Newcastle and Edinburgh, has succeeded in preserving its traditional character. Now, its new rail link has made the region much more accessible, without the need to take the car.

All in all, well worth a visit.  Just don’t tell everyone.


Further Info:

The Borders Railway 

Duncan House

The Mainstream Trading Company

The Cream Chimneys Kelso

4 Abbeys Cycle Route

Borders Abbeys Way


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Greyfriars Garden: a green sanctuary in the heart of the Merchant City and an important memorial to Glasgow’s medieval past.

It’s Merchant City Festival time again, and included in this year’s programme is the opportunity to visit Greyfriars Garden.  This wonderful little green space, almost within touching distance of George Square, is a fabulous advertisement for the value  – both aesthetically and horticulturally – of urban gardens, as well as to the skill of the gardeners themselves.


The raised bed allotments
The raised bed allotments

Located on Shuttle Street, almost across from High Street station, the garden is circled by the tower blocks of Strathclyde University, as well as the profusion of student residences that have sprung up in recent years in this part of the city.

The site was originally that of a medieval friary. The Greyfriars who lived here were Franciscan monks, known for their care of the poor and the sick and, appropriately, renowned for their orchard and vegetables.

Medieval Glasgow was an important religious and educational centre and the Greyfriars were also responsible for establishing the city’s first hospital, across the road from the present day Royal Infirmary. Sadly, the friary was ransacked during the Reformation and one of the friars reputedly burnt at the stake.

A bee-friendly lavender
A bee-friendly lavender

Today, the garden consists of 42 small raised bed allotments, constructed from recycled materials and containing a wide variety of vegetables, fruit and pollen-rich flowers.

Membership is open to residents of nearby Merchant City, Trongate, Ladywell and High Street north. It costs £10 per year and, unsurprisingly, there is a waiting list.  The garden was established in 2012 and is a stalled (temporary) space, so its future is uncertain.

If you have the chance, please visit.  The Greyfriars Garden Association hosts various other open days during the year and is happy to arrange other visits.

Contact them at:

A quiet space for a well-earned rest
A quiet space for a well-earned rest
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Southern Jutland: Denmark’s Hidden Corner

Sand dunes along Jutland's wild, west coast
Sand dunes along Jutland’s wild, west coast

Battered by North Sea squalls and any left-over weather from the UK, the wild west coast of southern Jutland is not immediately recognisable as one of Denmark’s main tourist attractions, certainly as far as British visitors are concerned.

All the more reason to go then, particularly as Jutland, the only part of Danish territory connected to the mainland, is easily accessible by rail, thereby providing the ideal excuse for a train journey through Germany, with city stop-offs in Cologne and Hamburg.

In truth, the decision to visit Jutland had been a no-brainer for the previous six months, since I met up with my best friend from schooldays who has lived there since her marriage to a Jutlander. We lost touch after leaving university but, thanks to the glories of the internet, seamlessly took up much as we left off too many years previously.

Birthplace of Jacob Riis in RIbe
Birthplace of Jacob Riis in RIbe

Until then my knowledge of the region began and ended with the Schleswig-Holstein question and the defeat of the Danes by the Prussian army in 1864; the first step to the unification of Germany by 1870. My initial awakening to the attractions of the region only emerged with a gift from my friend of a book by the famous journalist/photographer, Jacob Riis.  Although best known for his exposure of slum conditions in New York in the late 19th century, Riis was born in Ribe, the  main centre in southern Jutland. Ribe is also where my friend and her family live.

The medieval streets around Ribe Cathedral
The medieval streets around Ribe Cathedral

Fortuitously, Ribe is the oldest town in Denmark and the best-preserved medieval settlement in the country. Founded in Viking times, its river access to the sea made it the most important trading centre between the Frankish empire and the Scandinavian states to the north.  The town’s hegemony lasted until the end of the 16th century when the combination of a devastating fire, the silting up of the harbour and the relocation of the royal family to Copenhagen, resulted in a steep decline in Ribe’s fortunes.

But medieval misfortune has become 21st century advantage. Because there was little subsequent investment in Ribe, there was almost no rebuilding and it remained virtually unscathed  by industrialisation. As early as 1899 a conservation organisation was established and today the old town appears practically untouched since its medieval heyday: a honeypot of cobbled streets and half timbered houses.

Downtown Ribe: a honeypot of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses
Downtown Ribe: a honeypot of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses

Designated a preservation zone, the centre is blissfully devoid of chain stores and franchises, so the shops and cafes retain a considerable degree of individuality and character.  And, as this is Denmark, there are knitting shops (much fewer, sadly, in recent years) with wooden shelves stacked with yarn, needles and patterns, noticeably reminiscent of a 1960s British high street.

Sand dunes along Jutland's wild west coast
It’s Denmark, so there must be knitting!



Bicycles, the ubiquitous Danish sit-up-and-begs clatter over the cobbles, their baskets piled with everything from delicious pastries, to dogs, babies and almost every type of household implement. Their riders are every bit as eclectic in age and dress code; clad for the weather and everyday activities with no need to be uber-visible in gaudy lycra and flashing lights. Even in a small rural town there are cycle lanes and traffic etiquette based on equality of all road users.  Nirvana indeed.

View from the cathedral tower: originally also a look-out for floods
View from the cathedral tower: originally also a look-out for floods

Towering over the town is Ribe Cathedral, the Domkirke. A church, generally accepted as being the first  Christian place of worship in Denmark,  was first established here in the ninth century and became a major staging post for pilgrims travelling to Rome. The present cathedral, with its distinctive Romanesque architecture, was built from around 1150 and is visible across the pancake-flat water meadows for miles around. Climb the 248 steps of the tower and it’s clear why it used to double as a look-out tower for flooding.

The landscape, a smorgasbord of heathland, drainage ditches and a few brave trees, is so uniformly flat it looks to have been signed off by spirit level. The huge surround skies envelop the horizon and can transform from brilliant blue to gunmetal grey in minutes as storms roar in from the North Sea. It’s bleak and barren, but with a stark, brutal kind of beauty that also is a inescapable reminder of the raw power of nature.

Surround skies and pancake-flat terrain
Surround skies and pancake-flat terrain

Approximately on the latitude of Newcastle-on-Tyne, southern Jutland tends to share the same kind of temperatures, but when the sun does shine in mid summer the nearby coast is a magnet for visitors, particularly from Germany. The shared history and geography of this area ensures there is a common culture and German is still spoken in places.

The Wadden Sea, a haven for migratory birds
The Wadden Sea, a haven for migratory birds



Endless stretches of sandy beaches are ideal for bracing coastal walks when the weather is not so kind and also as a haven for birds.  The Wadden Sea, one of Denmark’s five national parks, stretches from just west of Esbjerg (around 30km north of Ribe) south to the German border and provides ideal conditions for millions of migratory birds.

Within the park are the islands of Fano and Mando, both easily accessible from the mainland – the latter by a tractor bus or by bike, along a 10km causeway and adjacent cycle path.  The islands are popular as summer retreats, both for their sandy beaches and their cute, historic charm, with thatched cottages, original lighthouses and interesting churches containing images of boats and other links to the sea.

Causeway to Mando
Causeway to Mando

Overlooked and undiscovered (certainly as far as British tourists are concerned) southern Jutland tends to be somewhere merely en route north to Legoland, or on to Copenhagen. But its water meadows and peat lands contain much history – Tollund Man, remember, lies not too far away in Silkeborg and the Battle of Jutland was fought off the shores of the nearby North Sea in 1916 – ancient and modern. Its settlements and people retain an authentic individuality,  increasingly scarce in our rapidly homogenised world, and a unique fusion of modest charm and Danish style.

Visit and you won’t be disappointed.

And that tractor bus
And that tractor bus




 Further details on Ribe and surrounding area

Information on  activities in the Wadden Sea National Park

Where to find Tolland Man



Other nearby places of interest:

The old lace-making town of Tonder:



 The spectacular Koldinghus:



Windmill on Mando:



Getting there: travelling to Jutland from the UK by train is easy, relaxing and much better for the environment. Find out how to go

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So Long 2014; You’ve Been an Interesting Year


With plenty of striking pictures of the unexpected, but appropriately seasonal, weather of the last few days, it seems much more fitting to say goodbye to 2014 through images rather than too many words.

Unexpected festive weather in the shires
Unexpected festive weather in the shires

It’s certainly been an eventful year, with many unexpected twists and turns, not least as far as that perennial favourite topic of British conversation, the weather, was concerned.

A snowy Hogmanay sunrise
A snowy Hogmanay sunrise


The Weather: after the relentless rain (and the risible response of DEFRA and its erstwhile, hapless head, Owen Patterson) of the early months, spring arrived at least a month earlier than in 2013 and heralded a consecutive spell of warm, sunny days that stretched from midsummer right throughout to the end of October.

An English country garden
An English country garden

High summer in Middle England was a revelation, with overflowing hedgerows and bountiful butterflies (including a welcome return for the recently-rare small tortoiseshell) enjoying the Buddleia.   And, even it was rather incongruous still to be enjoying tee shirt temperatures at Halloween, it certainly beat the usual wet and windy autumn storms.

The exquisite peacock butterfly
The exquisite peacock butterfly


Flora and Fauna: a settled period of sun didn’t just benefit the Lepidoptera and their habitat.  After last year’s dismal showing, the bedding plants in their tubs and baskets were back to their radiant best.  But the undoubted natural highlight of the year was the arrival of a young, fledgling robin, who took refuge in the garden, stayed for a few weeks, ate his way through several packets of oatcakes, learned to fly and came back each day to sing (for his breakfast, lunch and dinner). By the time he left for good his chest was beginning to redden and memories of those delightful days of late summer have been rekindled with each delivery of a traditional robin Christmas card.

My brave little fledgling singing for his supper
My brave little fledgling singing for his supper


Scotland: a momentous year for Scotland was also enhanced by a Mediterranean-like summer.  The Commonwealth Games enjoyed early days of tropical heat that had visitors swapping their fleeces and umbrellas for sun cream and shorts.  Glasgow Green resembled a giant beach and the heat lasted right up till the day before September’s referendum.

A sunny afternoon on Glasgow Green: Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson is in foreground
A sunny afternoon on Glasgow Green, with  Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson (white shirt)  in foreground

Strangely, the most momentous constitutional event of the last three centuries didn’t seem to be taken seriously until the eve of the vote by many in the rest of the kingdom.  Although its outcome, despite the result, is far from clear, one lasting legacy will definitely be the images of 16 and 17 year olds in their school uniforms, queuing to vote in their thousands, after making an important, informed and mature contribution throughout the debate.

The Scottish referendum: the most momentous constitutional event of the last 300 years
The Scottish referendum: the most momentous constitutional decision of the last 300 years

In a year of developments, some positive, some negative (the rise of the Greens has balanced to some extent the repugnance of Ukip) that have rumbled the political establishment, the positive engagement of young people in Scotland now seems, happily, to be spreading to other parts of the UK, with first time voters becoming much more involved in political debate.


St Pancras: gateway to another European tain journey
St Pancras: gateway to another European tain journey

Holidays: January was brightened up with another train journey to Italy, for what has become my annual trip to the wonderful Kokopelli Camping   bookended by two overnight stays at the welcoming Windsor Hotel in Milan

Pristine pistes and sky to match
Pristine pistes and sky to match: Abruzzo in winter

For the first time, I was able to experience the dramatic mountains of the Abruzzo in winter and, although temperatures were more akin to mid April, there was plenty of snow on the tops and a day’s snowshoeing was one of the highlights of the holiday.

Milan: always a favourite destination
Milan: whatever the season, always a favourite destination

On the way back, I was also able to achieve another long-held ambition; seeing Leonardo’s Last Supper, in Milan.  It didn’t disappoint. Usually it’s necessary to book online, well in advance, but if you are in the city out of season and are not part of a large group, try turning up at the booking office in person and be prepared to be flexible about fitting in individually when they have available space.

Peaceful, pastoral New Galloway
Peaceful, pastoral New Galloway

Post Commonwealth Games, the crowded vibrancy of city-centre Glasgow was followed by a few days camping in peaceful, pastoral New Galloway    This idyllic region of south west Scotland is routinely overlooked or ignored even by other Scots.  As a result, its alluring landscapes, dark skies and important history are complemented by quiet roads and uncrowded beaches. Throw in some thriving culture; an established artists’ town (Kirkudbright)  foodie haven (Castle Douglas), Scotland’s book town (Wigtown) and you have the kind of place that I like to visit.

Cycling doesn't get any better than this: NCN 73, between Newton Stewart and Wigtown
Cycling doesn’t get any better than this: NCN 73, along the quiet lanes of Galloway

A few weeks later I ventured another 50 miles or so west to explore, for the first time the most southerly point of Scotland, the Mull of Galloway

Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature
Rolling pastures framed by the deep blue sea in the background: Galloway in miniature

Surrounded on three sides by the sea, with its traditional links with Ireland and its own mythical history, this is a magical place with a coastscape second to none.  Yes, the wind does blow here, but the views are breathtaking and its wild and marine life abundant – on a short morning’s cliff walk, the paths were shared with a fox, two hares and an inquisitive deer.

Galloway coastscape
Galloway coastscape

Finally, with the weather still too good to miss, in September I embarked on a Spaceships Campervan journey between Edinburgh and London; an interesting experience to say the least

Highside Farm: my kind of campsite
Highside Farm: my kind of campsite

The most memorable aspects of the trip were discovering some excellent campsites; notably the alluring  Highside Farm  in beautiful Teesdale and the remarkably rural (given its proximity to London) and conveniently sited Town Farm near Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire.

2014's suitably snowy final sunset
2014’s suitably snowy final sunset

 Culture: and, last but certainly not least, a mention of the books, films, art and music that enlivened the year.

Books – The Goldfinch (Donna doesn’t disappoint), Stoner (absolutely lived up to its rave reviews) and the joys of re-aquaintance with the wonderful Joan Wyndham wartime diaries

Films – Ida, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Imitation Game and Under the Skin (in approximate order)

Art – vying for first place and marking 300 years since the Georgian accession were the British Library’s Georgians Revealed and Let Glasgow Flourish at Kelvingrove, then another Kelvingrove gem celebrating the life of Alasdair Gray, plus an interesting Stanley Spencer exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery

Music – after a year of neglect, some progress was made in improving guitar grades, but must resolve to try harder in 2015


Epilogue: so 2014, an interesting and eventful year, rounded off in personal terms by finally putting the house on the market, in anticipation of moving back to Scotland. Who knows what 2015 will bring; I’ll keep you posted.


Happy New Year.




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Barton Re-Signing Day, July 2013

We have been lucky, weather-wise, with our Sustrans Fridays this year – even during the bitter spring, our monthly workdays avoided the worst of the wind and snow – and the last two,  in June and July, both dawned warm and sunny; perfect conditions for our planned signing of the re-route round Barton.

Pashley Pete
Pashley Pete

After having made a start in June, and now helped by the welcome addition of Mick and  Marg, we convened at the Kingfisher Cafe in Fradley, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the completion of the task.

Preliminaries over – as ever, we looked on and listened in admiration as Bob talked us through his immaculate spreadsheets detailing tasks completed and outstanding – we got down to discussing the important business of the day; finding a free evening to meet up at Jean’s for a midsummer social evening.

One of the great assets of the Lichfield Volunteer Rangers is the range of talents and expertise everyone brings to the table and, as we left the cafe, Pete was on hand to advise Jill how best to look after her new Pashley, while Marg demonstrated how to ride it with her characteristic  style and aplomb.

Marg demonstrates how to ride with style
Marg demonstrates how to ride with style

On the way to Barton we were able to take advantage of one of the benefits of the recent re-route round Alrewas, by stocking up with homemade preserves from the garden shop in Post Office Lane.

Arriving in Barton and, sustained by some refreshingly cool orange juice, Bob quickly got down to work and, putting his years of BT experience to good use, scaled Jean’s indispensable ladder to sort both old and new signs at The Green/Short Lane junction.

Moving round to Church Lane, even the luscious foliage of the churchyard was no match for Mick as he effortlessly sawed through a forest of holly branches to ensure the new signs would be fully visible from all angles.

Never mind about the post, is the sign straight?
Never mind about the post, is the sign straight?


By now it was early afternoon and, with the temperature hovering around 30 degrees, Marg organised the take-away sandwiches and we adjourned to Jill’s garden for some well-deserved recuperation and refreshments.


All hands to the task
All hands to the task

And, as the first Friday in July traditionally heralds the climax of the Wimbledon fortnight, what better way to celebrate a productive and enjoyable day, than with a cool, refreshing glass of Pimm’s?


NB: talking of Wimbledon, all those angst-ridden tea times-with-Murray, hiding behind the sofa as matches hang on a knife edge well into the evening, are now well and truly forgiven after your marvellous performance on Sunday, Andy. Well done from everyone in the group,  you are a true champion.

That empty Pimm's bottle: clear evidence of a successful day
That empty Pimm’s bottle: clear evidence of a successful day
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Ways to get More of Us Cycling, Part Three: Silk Scarves and Woolly Gloves

Depending on your take on the subject, it’s either crazy, astonishing, predictable or just sad, that one of the reasons most regularly given by women as to why they don’t cycle is their worry about how it will affect their appearance.

From paranoia about helmet hair to distaste about having to gear up like a lycra warrior, there is little doubt that a negative image about how you will look if you cycle is a deterrent for many people who currently do not get on their bikes.

And, given that this image is a particular obstacle predominately (if not exclusively) for women, it is another, important barrier to higher female participation in cycling.

Here, yet again, we compare very unfavourably with our European neighbours in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where the percentage of female cyclists is much higher. But, although dedicated cycle lanes and more protection from the law undeniably contribute to this, take a look at the people on their bikes in these countries and they will invariably be wearing ‘normal’ clothes. All part of a very different cycling culture of course, but an important facet of it, nevertheless.

Clearly the nature of your cycling and the type of bike you use will determine how you dress: a tweed coat would look as out of place on a carbon fibre racer as lycra would beside the wicker basket on a Pashley. There are, of course, certain safety precautions, such as not having anything flapping loosely around your pedals, or wearing long flowing clothes on a bike with a crossbar, that should be sensibly observed when cycling, but it is nonsense to contend that you can’t cycle in ordinary clothes.

And, given that this is particularly the case for short journeys to work, or school, or to the local shops – the very type of travel we should be encouraging by bike and not car – then persuading more people that you don’t have to dress up like a spaceman to cycle takes on even more importance.

Happily, there has been more focus on this in recent years and a number of retaillers selling adaptable cycle gear – “as at home in the office, as in the saddle” or such like – have sprung up, to the extent we now have the Lauren Lavernes of the world recommending their cycling gear of choice. All very well, and if it encourages more people on to their bikes, even better, but essentially this is still specialist gear and it continues to  conform to the belief that is necessary to wear particular clothes, whether specialist, adaptable or fashionable, before you can feel comfortable about cycling.

That this gear will be, by definition, expensive, compounds the problem and also fits into the growing fashion industry that is now outdoor gear. Indeed  the great outdoors is fast becoming  the new fashion catwalk. Open any magazine devoted to outdoor activity these days and at least half the pages will be devoted to advertising and ‘testing” gear. Of course exposure in the outdoors requires certain warm, waterproof and some specialised kit, and expert advice is  helpful. But the line between advice and the impression that expensive kit is a necessity, is a fine one, and one whose emphasis will, inevitably, conspire against those who cannot afford it.

After years of spending money on all kinds of ugly, smelling, uncomfortable ‘technical gear’, I now unreservedly admit that my mother (who knew nothing about outdoor gear and whose idea of an outdoor expedition was to navigate her way between Harrods and Harvey Nics, but did know her fashion and fabrics) was right all along in her advocacy of natural fabrics. Wool and silk will keep you warmer, or cooler, than any man made fibre and warm when wet.

So, a wool scarf, tied appropriately, will not only look better, but keep you warmer than a polyester buff and wool gloves will, unlike any of their technical equivalents, keep your hands warm even in soaking rain – see my experiences in Arran.

Silk scarves and woolly gloves

As for hair, I don’t intend to become embroiled into a debate about helmets, but if you do see the benefit of wearing a helmet, there is a simple solution to the dreaded ‘helmet hair’. Tie a silk scarf, as a turban, or bandeau, under your helmet and, even if you have thick, voluminous hair like me, it will not flatten. I promise! And before you shriek about the cost of silk scarves, in my experience, old ones that I’ve had for years but no longer wear, have tended to be the best, perhaps because they may have a higher proportion of silk. But have a trawl round your local market, charity and ethnic shops, as well as the internet, where you can pick up lovely, cheap and colourful silk scarves very reasonably – you never know, you may even be able to coordinate the colours with your cycling clothes!

So you can keep warm, or cool, or both and look good on a bike, without spending hundreds of pounds – and it  can be the excuse you needed to sort out all those accessories at the back of your wardrobe.



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Ways to get More of Us Cycling, Part Two: Burn Calories, not Carbon

I promised some positive suggestions to encourage more people to get on their bikes last time, so what can be more agreeable than talking about food, and its many connections with cycling?

Squares of coconut ice, yum! And small enough to fit into your saddlebag

Cycling has a long association with food and nice places to consume it. The earliest organised cycling groups, such as the Clarion Club, routinely structured their rides round the availability of refreshment stops en route and the pattern continues today: the excellent independent cafe in my village recently extended to seven day opening largely because of the demand from the Sunday morning pelotons.

Having just returned from a breezy hour and half ride this afternoon, what kept me going through a sharp shower and some tricky road conditions was the prospect of a hot cup of tea and some delicious black jack millionaire’s shortbread (my baking, Dan Lepard’s recipe) on my return to a warm kitchen, with the aroma of slow-cooking chicken wafting from the Rayburn.

Yes, I know obesity is one of the most pressing problems facing us as a society but, let’s face it, obesity is not generally the result of treating ourselves to a few pieces of cake every now and again, particularly if it is home-baked from fresh, natural ingredients. The appalling level of obesity in the UK  today is more the result of an imbalanced diet largely composed of processed food, combined with an inadequate level of activity.

Cycling is one of the best ways to combat obesity as it can be enjoyed by virtually all age groups, it gets people out in the fresh air and is best appreciated in a social setting, so also encourages inclusivity. In addition, as a sustainable form of transport with no associated fuel costs it ticks the environmental and economic boxes as well.

But fighting obesity is not just about eating less; it’s about eating the right amount of good food and balancing that with burning an appropriate amount of calories. Trying to lose weight is a long, hard process and, despite what the ‘wonder diets’ say, there are no quick fixes, or miracle cures.

Homemade chocolate truffles

There always needs to be a light at the end of the tunnel, a treat at the end of a long, hard slog. Cycling burns calories, not carbon, and we should continue to celebrate its close connection with coffee shops and tea rooms: a calorific treat, in agreeable company at the end of an active day, can be an ideal way to encourage more people to take to two wheels.

This Friday it’s my turn to host the local Sustran’s volunteer group and, after a 20 odd mile circuit checking signage and considering improved re-routes, it’s back here for copious amounts of tea and coffee, fresh ginger and coffee, cake, freshly baked biscuits and what’s left of the mince pies – a true Boot and Bike Bake Off.

Just off to collect some eggs from my neighbour’s ultra free range hens who appear to have colonised my garden as well.


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Love this Winter Cycling

If a week is a long time in politics, then just a few days can witness a sea change in climate, landscape and mood. Gone – at least for the moment – are the dank, dog days of late autumn, suddenly replaced by the sharp brightness of early winter.

Sure, it’s cold, but  isn’t December supposed to be a month of short days and long cold nights? And the unbroken ice blue skies of the last few days have more than made up for any accompanying Arctic blasts of the wind.

One of the big advantages of flexi working time during winter weekdays is the opportunity to take advantage of the short window of ideal cycling time; after any ice has melted, but before the sun sinks too low and the 4×4 wags plough their way back to the school gates. Pick your roads carefully and on weekdays, you can also avoid the leisure traffic and the embarrassment of being overtaken by a peleton of Sunday morning mamils.

True, I will admit, this morning was just that bit too icy to risk riding before lunchtime and the biting wind was the Siberian side of north, but over the last week I have persuaded myself on to the saddle to take advantage of the cold, serenity and enjoy some of my best cycling days this year. Unlike in the so-called summer months it has been dry and still and the cloudless skies have revealed the full allure of austere, frosty-edged landscapes.

“Isn’t far too cold to be out on a bike on a day like this?” is the usual reaction of friends and neighbours when they see me taking to two wheels. Well, I admit it takes me an age to get geared up and ready to ride, but once I get started, I’m always pleasantly surprised how quickly I warm up and and the fear of sudden chill is the best spur to sustaining a sufficient level of effort.

And, in response to the second most common question I’m asked, no I don’t tend to wear THAT many layers. Trial and error have convinced me that if I wear more than three layers, I get too hot and they feel far too heavy. So, I’ve settled on merino base and mid layers, topped off by a micro down jacket, if very cold, or a winter cycling jacket in all but the most extreme days. Usually my winter-weight cycling tights are fine; if it is really cold, I wear some normal tights underneath. Add a neck buff extended over the ears and a pair of insulated gloves and, crucially, some fleece-lined bootees to keep my feet warm and I’m ready for the coldest of dry days.

My new bike has also come into its own over the last couple of weeks. Lighter and with a more comfortable riding position than my old Marin (and apart from  a slight reservation about the brakes), I feel more confident on the Scott.

So, after the wettest summer I can remember, I’m more than happy that the weather has turned colder, and drier. I might have to dig out my mountain bike if it snows but, until then, I’ll wrap up warm and make the most of the shortest days of the year. Who would have thought I’d need my sunglasses more in December that in June and July? It really has been a strange year.

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Old Bike, New Bike



My trusty old Marin

A dank, wet November afternoon, virtually dark and it’s not yet three pm: not the ideal time of year for cycling. Today, though, it’s not just the weather that’s keeping me indoors, it’s also the lack of a suitable bike. Although, I’m back on board my Cannondale, its race tyres and lack of lights, make it better suited to a dry, bright autumn day and, sadly, my trusty, faithful Marin hybrid looks as though its days on the road might finally have come to the end of the line.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had its squeaks and clicks and groans dealt with as quickly and effectively as possible, but now, with replacement and repair values estimated considerably above the cost of a new bike, regrettably, it looks like the time has come to give my Marin a permanent, fully deserved rest.

My faithful workhorse that has carried me and just about everything from vegetables and paint to flower pots and tennis rackets; that has transported me thousands of miles to work, to the shops and along some of the most isolated roads in the country and has never complained, even when it has ended up scraped and spreadeagled at the bottom of a brook because of my lack of concentration, doesn’t owe me anything and has repaid its initial price and servicing costs many times over. Now, it can look forward to a well-earned retirement in its dry garage, with only a few short, undemanding runs round the village to keep it feeling loved and remembered.

But alongside my sadness at saying goodbye to an old and trusty friend, I’m also equally excited about selecting the best choice as its replacement. Although I am as far removed from a techie fiend as can be imagined – changing a tube is a mechanical achievement for me – I always approach the purchase of a new bike with a mixture of naive enthusiasm, obsession and ineptness that drives my friends and cycling buddies to amused distraction.

So, having begun the week diligently completing all forthcoming work to free up a day at the bike shop, all possible down time is being utilised to source and compare suitable replacements.

Should I go for the prosaic option and stay with a hybrid – comfort, cost and versatility – or follow my heart and finally buy the tourer – classic, stylish and romantic – that I’ve long craved?

The jury’s out, the websites are being trawled and it’s just as well Downton, the tennis and Inspector Montalbano have finished as there won’t be much time for telly gazing over the next few days.

All advice and suggestions – particularly from those better versed in the technicalities of bicycles – gratefully received.

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Hedgerow Recipes

Now you’ve picked  your hedgerow fruit, here are some suggestions as to what to do with it.

Firstly, and most importantly, remember to wash it: anything near a road is liable to pick up pollution from vehicles, but crop spraying in fields is perhaps a bigger hazard. Although it’s tempting to eat brambles straight away, it’s even more vital to wash these first as they will not be sterilised by high cooking temperatures.

Brambles (wild blackberries) are probably the best known and most versatile hedgerow fruit and can be used in crumbles, fruit tarts and various other desserts, as well as being ideal for pureeing. Substituting around 50g of pureed brambles for raspberries makes a richer and deeper coloured top layer for coconut ice.

Coconut Ice


Elderberries are one of our most common hedgerow fruits, but are routinely ignored. The berries are too bitter to eat, but when boiled and sweetened, make a deliciously rich jelly, with a unique flavour. The great thing about jelly making is that you don’t need to core, or de-seed the fruit before boiling it.

1. Cut the berries off the stocks, add some apples (the humble crab apple is best, but ordinary cookers will do), chopped roughly, with cores and skin.

2. Cover with just enough water and boil gently until it resembles a soft pulp.

3. Strain through a muslin bag (jelly bag) – a clean linen tea towel will do – and allow to drip overnight. Avoid touching or moving it, or the jelly will tend to become cloudy.

4. Measure the liquid – as a general rule you need the equivalent amount of sugar, eg, 1pt liquid = 1lb sugar (preserving traditionally uses imperial measurements) – and bring to boil.

5. Add the sugar, then continue to boil till setting point is reached – best way is to use a jam thermometer, but test by putting a spoonful on a cold saucer to see if it wrinkles when you draw your finger across it, as a back up.

6. Bottle and cover immediately – make sure jars/bottles have been sterilised and are hot, otherwise the jars may crack and anything other than scrupulously clean jars will attract mould.

Elderberry Jelly

Rosehips and rowans can also be used in hedgerow jellies, but be careful with the rosehips as they should be chopped before boiling and, as their inner fibres contain irritants, it’s best to do this in a processor and handle them wearing gloves.

Sloes are just coming into fruit and you can pick them well into November. They look like tiny purple damsons, but as they cling to blackthorns, take care when you pick them. They make a deliciously rich (and potent) liqueur type drink, the best recipe I’ve found being an adaptation of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s damson vodka.   Make it now for drinking next Christmas (allowing yourself a taster or two on bottling, of course). Makes around 1.5 litres. 1kg sloes, washed 500g sugar 1 litre vodka

  1. Prick each sloe several times with a pin, then transfer to a large, clean Kilner jar, demijohn or other suitable glass container with a tight-fitting lid or stopper.
  2. Add the sugar, pour in the vodka, seal and leave in a cool place away from direct sunlight.
  3. Every week or two, turn the jar on its head, then back again.
  4. After six months, strain the liquid through several layers of muslin, then bottle and seal tightly.
  5. Leave for at least another six months. It will be even better after two years – or more – provided you have the patience.
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